Educate me about (alternative) education!
January 11, 2012 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Are there any good documentaries about homeschooling, unschooling, or the Sudbury Valley model?

I'd prefer something fairly recent, well-made, and balanced in its presentation. Bonus points if it's available through Netflix.

Book recommendations are also welcome if the books are really, really good.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a while since I read it but I remember The Teenage Liberation Handbook being a really good discussion of unschooling philosophy and practice, if you're okay with an author inserting herself into the text a lot.

It was fairly at odds with my parents' nominally laissez-faire but tempermentally disciplinarian method of homeschooling, which might have explained the appeal to me.
posted by gauche at 9:06 AM on January 11, 2012

John Holt's "Teach Your Own" is a classic. (book though, not movie)
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:38 AM on January 11, 2012

My homeschooled son just started college yesterday. I've been around the homeschool community for 13 years but I'm having a hard time thinking of any documentary related to homeschooling, other than Jesus Camp. Which, of course, really isn't about homeschooling, and isn't really balanced.

Growing Op is a 2008 movie about a unschooling family of pot growers in CA. I thought it was entertaining - but it is a comedy, not a documentary.

Reading anything by John Taylor Gatto or John Holt might be useful. Also, I liked College Without High School for inspiration on my son could never set foot in a high school; and yet not miss out on the stuff colleges want to see on an application.
posted by COD at 9:48 AM on January 11, 2012

This is in production now...and the trailer is here. This short video gives a picture of Not Back to School Camp, the 'child' of the Teenage Liberation Handbook.

The Secular Homeschool Community encompasses a wide variety of approaches by people who aren't members of the religious wing of the HS movement, and there are tons of resources posted there, including videos. THey also have a blogroll with a wide variety of non-religious homeschooling blogs. Home Education Magazine also links to a wide variety of perspectives, most (but not all) secular and oriented toward less-structured forms of education.

There are various videos from various perspectives all over youtube, including interviews with various movement leaders, and a search for "unschooling" or "homeschooling" should snag you a lot. Searchng for specific terms, like "workboxes", "homeschool room", or "homeschool day" will get you more specific accounts of what people do all day.

Just be aware that some groups which claim to represent all homeschoolers don't - so (for example) the HSLDA is a religious right group exclusively, while Sandra Dodd represents only one type of (radical) unschooling and Linda Dobson is more of a libertarian.

Homeschooling Research Notes (a blog) follows up on academic research on homeschooling from a very neutral perspective and is super-useful.
posted by Wylla at 10:26 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Echoing COD about Jesus Camp - great film, but the only homeschoolers that the film-makers came in touch with were members of the extreme fringes of the religious right...which makes sense, since the doc itself is about a group on the extreme fringes of the religious right.

If you just watch that, however (or just read Kathryn Joyce, or Vykie Garrison, or Pharyngula, or Butterflies and Wheels), you are likely to get a very distorted "OMG!!! HOMESCHOOLERS ARE BRAINWASHING THEIR KIDS INTO A ZOMBIE ARMY!!!" picture. That's not to deride those people at all, just to point out that their careers are devoted to exposing and combating extremism, and they therefore see an awful lot of it. People with houses full of Charlie's Playhouse toys don't really make it onto their radar.
posted by Wylla at 10:31 AM on January 11, 2012

A precursor to Sudbury is the Summerhill School.

From Wikipedia:
"Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend."

I read "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing" by Neill and enjoyed it. He also wrote "Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood."

I haven't seen any documentaries on the school, but Google does show some hits.
posted by maurreen at 1:12 PM on January 11, 2012

I just started Free Range Learning. I'm only about 50 pages in but so far, it's really good.
posted by upatree at 2:00 PM on January 11, 2012

Mitchell Stevens' book, Kingdom of Children is fantastic.

He uses interviews with both religious homeschoolers and nonreligious unschoolers. He does a really wonderful job of being fair-minded and nonjudgmental--not in a sense of treating everything as equally valid so much as in a sense of letting the story, people, and methods speak for themselves. I learned a lot from this book.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:59 PM on January 11, 2012

The Stevens book is a bit odd (but definitely worth reading!) - he seems to have found a community that was very sharply divided, and one in which one side (the religious right) was "winning" what he saw as an unresolvable conflict. He even seemed to think that unschoolers were converting to fundie Christianity to be on the 'winning' side, a pattern no one else seems to have ever noticed or written about.

I suspect that (unless the community he worked in was very strange and still locked in the conflicts of the early 1990s a decade later) what Mitchell was actually seeing was the growth in numbers of academically-driven homeschoolers - people interested in things like The Well-Trained Mind or the writings of Charlotte Mason, or people doing FIAR, unit study approaches, or Sonlight. Many (not all) of those resources are "Christian" in the sense that they are created by religious folks, but all are easily adaptable to everything from totally secular to 'crunchy christian' use. Stevens seems to have assumed that, since in his mind all homeschoolers were either ideologically-driven workbook machines or ideologically-driven workbook avoiders, anyone who followed any curriculum was on the side of the religious right. That likely wasn't accurate then and really isn't now.

I point that out because you seem really interested in the radical unschooling / Holt / Sudbury side of the spectrum, and Stevens' book makes it seem like that's one 'side' in a conflict, rather than one end of a continuum, of which an increasing number of US homeschoolers are closer to the middle.
posted by Wylla at 12:30 AM on January 12, 2012

Sorry for not being efficient and putting in everything into one answer. Just noticed you are in NM, according to your profile - the people at The Tutorial School or Colorado's Alpine Valley School might be able to help you find resources.

If you are looking for a completely different perspective - someone who argues AGAINST unschooling or unstructured education from a secular perspective - (for balance), try the UK Blog Home Education Heretic, keeping in mind that unschooling is generally called "autonomous education" in the UK. The author is a father who homeschooled his daughter into Oxford...and advocates for much greater regulation of homeschooling in the UK, essentially to make unstructured educational approaches much harder to pursue legally.
posted by Wylla at 2:11 AM on January 12, 2012

I don't mean to be argumentative, but I remember the drama of Stevens's book slightly differently: in his time spent with the unschoolers, a recurring problem was that creating a structured, functioning organization that both adhered to their principles and had good leadership was hard. This is oversimplifying, but one main problem was the sense that everything should be up for a vote (and thus little getting done). The fundamentalist homeschoolers didn't have that problem because they strongly believed in hierarchy and following the leader. Stevens does talk about some liberal parents joining conservative homeschool groups for practical reasons, but I don't think he's arguing at all that there's a phenomenon of liberal unschoolers, fed up with the problems in their community, converting to fundamentalism just so they can join homeschool groups.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:22 AM on January 12, 2012

I liked the Stevens book...and it is worth reading.

I think that the book itself suffered a bit from Stevens' focus on his overall thesis, which is , as you said, "that creating a structured, functioning organization that both adhered to [unschoolers'] principles and had good leadership was hard." Stevens was looking to make a larger point about the political victories of the religious right in the 90s and early 2000s, using one homeschooling community as an example, as his publisher's page for the book makes clear:

"Ultimately, the history of home schooling serves as a parable about the organizational strategies of the progressive left and the religious right since the 1960s.Kingdom of Children shows what happens when progressive ideals meet conventional politics, demonstrates the extraordinary political capacity of conservative Protestantism, and explains the subtle ways in which cultural sensibility shapes social movement outcomes more generally."

He didn't imply mass conversions among unschoolers, but did imply that he had observed conversions-by-drift, and more than one, as people found better organization and support among Christian conservatives than among 'inclusive' groups and moved into their social, and eventually their political/religious circles.

Mods or OP - please slap us both upside the head if this is total chatfilter / derail!
posted by Wylla at 5:23 AM on January 12, 2012

He didn't imply mass conversions among unschoolers, but did imply that he had observed conversions-by-drift, and more than one, as people found better organization and support among Christian conservatives than among 'inclusive' groups and moved into their social, and eventually their political/religious circles

I actually have observed the exact opposite, both personally with my own kids, and with just about everybody I know. We started out as fairly stereotypical "school-at-home" HSers, and by the time the kids were high school age we were mostly unschooling. I think a lot of goes back to what John Holt said, "Trust the children." In our case, we saw it working and therefore were less and less concerned about maintaining control. Other parents I've spoken with had very similar experiences.

Although I do think the inclusive support is much easier to find today than it was when we started HSing back in the late 90s.

OP - I've got a hardback copy of Kingdom of Children laying around somewhere. I don't know if it's a particularly difficult book to find these days but if you have trouble my copy is yours for the cost of shipping.
posted by COD at 9:00 AM on January 12, 2012

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